In Defense of Wood
Though I read with interest your livid comment on the professional reception of literature, I have found little, on reflection, to hang on to. The centerpiece of the sizing-up, your review of the New Republic, is a return to sender of the lively distemper for which that magazine is known. But James Wood, it seems to me, has always felt himself obligated to dig a basement for his strong opinions. Yours, by contrast, seem to roll around, rootless and itinerant.
TNR, you suggest, is no republic. Somewhere in a desert, an elite stands guard over reservoirs of intellect. Here is the Qatar of criticism. But is it true that these writers have been kept from developing “positive individuality,” as you call it? Though the tone is austere, the voices are distinct. The first thing you hear about Wood, after all, is: Well, here is something different. If it is the critic’s aim to outline and outfit a way of reading and thinking about books, a sensibility in which, as in a furnished room, the reader may take a month’s residence, then I cannot see that he has failed. The failure, you argue, is his want of “positivity”—that is, the refusal of his criticism to “cultivate something new.” This is the second thing one tends to hear. The New York Review of Books has recently chaffed Wood for his habit of walking backwards up the street: “You can’t write 19th-century social novels,” warns Daniel Mendelsohn, “about 21st-century global culture.”
It is true that Wood reserves his higher regard for the mastodons of another age. And such reservations, especially when so well put, are a natural disappointment to those who like to read. To those, like you, who’d also like to write, they seem openly aggressive. And so for a reluctance to boost new work, you have charged Wood with a perversion of the natural order: he “seems to want to be his own grandfather.” The order that you have in mind here is roughly this: that each new gang of critics will fall for each new group of writers the way the boys of the seventh grade will eventually get around to the girls. But isn’t it possible, always, and in general, for things to be going wrong?
We aren’t ever told. Though you slang the messenger, you offer no rejoinder to his news. Which books did he overlook? Which principles did he abuse? The back of the magazine, you complain, is lousy with aesthetes—those bent on “sniffing out the tasteless.” But Wood’s claim against, say, The Corrections rests not upon his palate, but upon an observation regarding literary genre. Franzen, following DeLillo, had advertised a theory of the novel. It was to “compete,” he said, with “reality.” In pointing to the peculiarity, perhaps the hubris, of this claim, Wood is not affecting a pose. You don’t have to wear a watch and fob to think that formal choices constrain the possibilities of expression.
Even where his concerns are aesthetic, Wood is neither petty nor mean. “How exact that phrase ‘hard diagonal’ is,” he writes of The Line of Beauty. “Hollinghurst, unlike some of his American coevals, knows when to end a sentence.” Would you deny publication to this one? The New Republic’s praise of restraint is surely out of step with the exuberant movements of pluralism. And if Mendelsohn’s instincts are correct, “21st-century global culture” may simply demand pleonasm of its writers. That, to some of us, would be cause for disappointment.
But there is no cause yet for your senses of urgency or aggrievement. The rooms of the century into which we are moving are not vacant, nor are they booked. There is time for you to catch your breath and call your audience. There will be readers for whom despair is most effectively checked by a sense of membership in a great tradition. Mr. Wood awaits them in the penthouse. For blissful types, there is the sunny bibliophilia of the Believer. (Meet in the pool at noon). And then, for those who will combat despair with moxie, with kicking displays of life, there is your venture. Best of luck. While you are waiting for your rooms to be made up, allow me to recommend the excellent bar.
Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” makes a vivid analogy between the modern gym and the factories of the industrial revolution. But while a treadmill may bear superficial resemblance to a conveyor belt, the two machines (as millions of people who still work with these “vestiges of the leftover equipment of industry” would attest) do not yield similar cardiovascular benefits. According to Greif, the test of modern exercise is whether it “could be done meaningfully without counting or measuring it.” Yoga, the most prominent exercise trend of the past ten years, fails this test. The counting of breaths promotes concentration while distracting the practitioner from her surroundings, creating a meditative state conducive to intellectual problem-solving. The psychological benefits of yoga may explain its popularity at gyms across the country (where, with other alternative exercises like Pilates and boxing, it is replacing the antiquated machines Greif mentions); however, I would argue that an old-fashioned exerciser, a runner for example, might experience similar mental stimulation on her daily route. By measuring her course in advance, she allows her mind to work in a less regimented way than it might were she sitting at her desk.
According to Greif, women just past college age are “the shock troops of modern exercise,” the goal of which is to “annihilate the unattractive body rather than preserve its longevity.” Perhaps in addition to contemplating their hips and thighs, these women are considering that the average American woman now lives to be seventy-nine years old. With two grandmothers in their nineties, whose sound minds don’t match their hunched bodies and fragile bones, I am less concerned about diseases that might kill me than those that might someday keep me from doing the things that make life worth living: cooking a meal, embracing a friend, taking a walk around the block—or maybe even past the gym, where I might pause to admire the firm abdominal muscles of the husky young man on the elliptical trainer.
Political Direction and Indirection
I enjoyed reading Mark Greif’s “Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy.” It is beautifully written and, as a description of a new kind of war, very persuasive. My memories of Vietnam lead me to be skeptical of the body counts you quote, but even if they are greatly exaggerated, the disproportion between American and Iraqi deaths is still extraordinary.
I am not sure that you are right to suggest that a war that produces a genuine settlement requires “two-sidedness.” Gerald Blainey, in a book on the causes of war, argues that overwhelming victories make for long periods of peace, but maybe this has to be an overwhelming victory in a long, bitterly fought war. The decisiveness of the Six Day War made for an easy occupation (in contrast to our twenty-some day war in Iraq); it wasn’t until Israel adopted a policy of annexation and settlement that serious resistance began; but the war did not produce anything like a settlement.
What I don’t know, after reading the essay, is what you think about this new kind of war—I mean, what you think politically. And when you say that the occupation will change our self-conception, if we have the nerve to look steadily at it and think, I am unsure what you think the product of our thought will be or should be. But if you mean to move us by indirection, and without arguing for a particular direction, you have succeeded splendidly. And I don’t believe that all political writing has to be directive, even though, in Dissent, we mostly write that way.
A San Francisco Reader Writes
So I went into Modern Times today to get a copy of your magazine, and they’ve never heard of it. I said, “They say on their web site that you carry it,” and the woman behind the counter said, “Yeah, someone else said that this morning.”
Jock Reader Demands Satisfaction
The fourth section of the Intellectual Situation [“Human, Not Too Human”] should never have been redrafted from the bar napkin on which it was first scribbled. It is deficient in context, nuance, and reason. I would like to provide some.
We are all getting bigger. A depression-less economy since WWII has provided most of our non-retired population with a healthier childhood diet; hence we grow taller. And we get too much of the same as adults; hence we grow fatter. Increased muscle mass is an option for any athlete or narcissist among us. The Japanese, late to industrialization but plenty enthusiastic about it, have sprouted even higher than us, relative to their traditional stature, in the last three generations. (Enter Ichiro, Hideki, and Kaz.)
As the entire Japanese population gets bigger, its best baseball players are able to win MVPs, pennants, and whopping contracts in our big leagues. Your sports editor equates similar swells with decline.
As for the sentiment running rampant through the rest, your man waxes nostalgic for the NBA of 1983 and the intellectualism (?) of Marty Barrett. Did all that book learning help Barrett bat over .500 in the 1986 World Series? Has this writer, by chance, spent too much time near Boston, where the last white man to win the NBA MVP circa 1983 is as revered as Robert E. Lee still is in parts of the defeated Confederacy?
The grinning invocation of “black-white RandyBarryJohnsonBonds” is also the author’s first explicit mention of race. Another thing any observant sports fan will tell you: Race is always a subtext whenever anyone complains about modern sports, especially if the complaint is based on the muscles, lack of respect for coaching, or artistic and teamwork failures of our current heroes. Your sports editor loudly knocked on two of those three crotchety aging white man doors.
I was disturbed by the conclusions your sports editor drew in his “Human, Not Too Human” essay. My earlier angry letter was a response to the ends, but not the means, of his thinking. In this (anger level TBA) letter, I would like to dissect his second paragraph, which is the intellectual source of your man’s trouble. It concludes with this:
A formal system is in place—the rules, plus the team’s offensive or defensive scheme—but within the parameters of that system each player has the freedom to act according to what he sees, and to what he intuits about what he cannot see. If he knows his teammates well, and anticipates their movements correctly, the result is harmonious and often beautiful.
All I can say is that your man in the stands ought to spend more time sniffing the chalk of locker room blackboards, and once the game starts might try sitting close enough to the hardwood so that he can notice the constant strategic machinations from the bench.
During the late ’80s emergence of the mega-superstar we missed our chance for the long-awaited “liberation from the tyranny of jockdom?” This, along with the previous praise of puny intellectuals, has given away too much personal history. Not all of us hated jocks in high school. Some of us were jocks.
The English Situation
Firstly, I have to congratulate you on n+1. It’s a fantastic magazine, a real cover-to-cover read with great images to boot. It deserves to do really well and I wish it a long and prosperous future.
I find it hard to think of a British periodical that is comparable to yours. We have the well-established Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, which are like slightly poorer cousins of the NYRB, and while they contain first class writing they do veer towards the weighty and worthy. They can also lack humour, which n+1 could never be accused of.
There are some smaller print mags that are taking risks and bubbling under the radar. Check out Amelia’s Magazine, Hey Ladies, Strange Attractor, and Zembla. You’ll probably notice these mags have a very visual emphasis. This seems to be the trend at the moment in the UK amongst the smaller publications. The national Sunday newspapers and their supplements have become the domain for longer reports.
There are political journals: the New Statesman and the Spectator. These cover culture, but with more pomposity than you’d think it possible to muster. The latter has been dubbed the Sextator because the sexual shenanigans of its staff have been making national headlines for the past six months. Its circulation has soared.
The big publishing storey of the past couple of years has been the trashy weekly. This includes titles such as Heat and Closer, which specialize in the lives of the lowest-level celebrities. Their photo-journalism doesn’t rise above images of visible panty lines and armpit sweat. They are marketed towards women.
The two biggest successes have been Nuts and Zoo, which are for men. They compete against each other to have the highest nipple count. The publisher of Nuts is owned by Time Warner so expect to see an American version on your newsstand soon. These weeklies have really caused a dent in the circulation of the quality monthlies.
Things are definitely heading in a depressingly downward spiral.
After “The Norm”
Dear Keith Gessen,
Your view of modern Russian literature will be not complete if you are not aware of these two outstanding Russian books:
(1) Most scandalous book in Russian literature—Secret Journal 1836-1837 by A. S. Pushkin.
(2) Works by the well-known Russian author Mikhail Armalinsky.
Mikhail Armalinsky is not just another talented Russian author, but the revolutionary prophet of erotic religion. No Russian author reached the depths of human sexual mentality that Armalinsky did.
M. Armalinsky has written in different genres: poetry, short stories, essays, novel. Thirteen of his books in Russian are published in the US. He is editor of the following collections:
Children’s Erotic Folklore
Russian Shameless Proverbs and Sayings
The First Almanac of Russian Erotic Literature
Armalinsky has translated and published the first complete Russian edition of Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade. The New York Museum of Sex has acquired a genital flag by Mikhail Armalinsky. The title of that symbolic art piece is “United State.”
You are welcome to read the translation from Russian of Mikhail Armalinsky’s essay on prostitution: “A She-Savior.” The main idea of the essay “A She-Savior” is that the legalization of prostitution must be based on a return of its divine, sacred character, so that prostitution will be considered the most honorable profession, the one closest to God, the holiest. Here are the chapters:
A Short History of Prostitution
A Comprehensive Definition of the
Why Young Men Need Prostitutes
Why the Lonely Need Prostitutes
Why Married Men Need Prostitutes
Why the Poor Need Prostitutes
Why Old Men Need Prostitutes
Why the Sick and Deformed Need
Why Every Man Needs a Prostitute
The Prostitute and the “Proper” Woman
The Causes and Incentives of
Hatred of Prostitutes
The Future of Prostitution
I would be happy to provide you with more information.
Keith Gessen replies: The genital flag?